Free Speech, Free Expression and Truth in History
IHT: EU backs Turkey over French law
I've been following this situation fairly closely because it touches on a number of things I hold dear to my heart. Unfortunately, one of them is the right of people to be wrong.
But just some quick background facts:
1. French lawmakers passed a law that would criminalise the denial that the killing of Armenians in Turkey prior to and during WW1 constitute genocide. This is inline with their criminalisation of Holocaust denial and general ban of anything related to the Nazis (I'm thinking here of the flareup that occur just before 2000 over the auction of Nazi memorabilia on Yahoo!France).
2. Turkey has punished its authors and intellectuals when they make the claim that it does constitute genocide on the basis that it is a insult to the Turkish identity.
3. The French President's party refused to have anything to do with the vote and is unlikely to approve it in the end. The former spokesperson for President Jacque Chirac and current Minister for European Affairs claims that it is not for the law to decide history.
4. The EU (senior EU officials) has come down on Turkey's side. The article unfortunately makes the argument purely on the basis of it being counterproductive to talks and enlargement etc. etc. and nothing whatsoever at all on Free Expression or Speech. Which is not very surprising if one considers the ICCPR (Internation Covanent on Civil and Political Rights) has abrogated hate speech as a category of protected speech or expression.
So as always, let's start with the principles of free speech and expression. There are a quite a number of justifications for such freedoms.
1. Justification from truth a.k.a. the Free market place of ideas. No one has a monopoly on Truth and it is in the clash of ideas that the closest approximations we have to the Truth emerges.
2. Justification from self autonomy/realisation. A person is what he thinks and expresses and a person if he is to be a truely autonomous being as opposed to a simple cog in the wheel of the majorty/society must be free to express what he thinks right.
3. Justification from Democracy. I like this one. We live in a Represenative Democracy and voters need to information in order to vote in an informed fashion. Free speech and expression provides those.
4. Justification from fear. Who do you trust to make censorship anyway? I don't even trust myself. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. MM LKY made some incredibly eloquent speechs while he was in opposition. As did Prof Jayakumar when he was still an academic.
So with all those in place, what can we say about hate speech (which I put denialist under because they tend to have hated as a basis for their denial). So let's take each principle and see how they weigh up.
1. Truth. Can we not simply say that somethings are so proven that they are true that there really is no point in allowing denialist material as all they do is to muddy the waters and then claim "Aha! Therefore it can't be true" (very like Intelligent Design and Creationism by the way). And as a result, it creates a fish market of ideas rather than a free market, such that even rational intelligent people may be fooled given they lack the time to investigate all claims and tend to rely on authority (rational ignorance is the Public Choice School's term for it).
I think there is much force in this argument, seeing that I do sometimes despair of my fellow people (yeah yeah, I'm in an elitist misanthrope mood today). But I think that's simply a very defeatist attitude and playing to the lowest voter sets off a vicious spiral from which debate never recovers. And I think the clash of ideas is very important, I now know more than I ever want to know about why ID and Creationism is simply wrong and unscientific (and in the process I learned loads about Evolution and the Philosophy of Science and Theology), why Holocaust Deniers are wrong as are the Anti-Vaxers and some others.
2. Self-autonomy and realisation. Is there any worth in allowing people to hold eroneous and potentially dangerous ideas? The current canard holds that "People are entitled to their opinions". Actually no they're not. An opinion is supposed to be predicated on facts. If you're wrong, you're wrong.
But having grown up in the era of "Asian Democracy", where Liberal Democracy was considered dangerous etc. etc. I have sympathy, not with the ideas these people hold BUT with the concept of letting debate reign. In the end, people can change their minds with sufficient evidence and when that happens, the truth is all the sweeter for it.
3. Democracy. Alright, I hesistate to invoke Godwin's law here but the Nazis came to power was not only through the democractic system (and subverting it from within) and because the system provided a platform for such anti-democratic hate platforms to win.
My counter argument to that is that it creates a mainstreaming and release valve effect. The Green Party is Germany was truely radical but under the influence of the moderating power of the electoral system, they have become much much less so, while still being radical enough to stay true to why they were formed in the first place and as long as they exist, there is no reason for people to drift to ever more radical factions and this is a incredibly valuable effect. Not to mention, they provide a sane voice and allow people to blow off steam without actually thinking of destroying the system in order to get their views heard.
Anyway, when they're in the open. It's a lot easier to mock and laugh at them.
4. Fear. It's narrow, all it does is to criminalise Genocide Denial, nothing more. There is nothing wrong with criminalising a dangerous idea.
Counter. The slippery slope rules, first the Nazis, Holocaust Denial, now Genocide denial, what's next? Remember, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The Sedition Act may be well and good one may think, but when one falls outside of its protected classes or when it's used against views you hold dear and are in fact right...
Simply put. You're screwed.